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Environmentalists point to FitzPatrick safety incidents in new report

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Environmental critics of nuclear power are seizing on a few safety incidents at the FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant detailed in a report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). 

The report notes multiple mishaps, like the oil leak into Lake Ontario that was connected to a temporary shutdown of the plant, and another event when two FitzPatrick employees were unintentionally exposed to radiation. The starkest finding is that solid nuclear waste which had spilled onto the floor of a contained room in the plant has been left untreated for at least four years. NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said that spill did not leave the site.

"This is a locked, highly shielded portion of the plant," Sheehan said. "Certainly no one from the public can get access to that, but even plant employees can only get in there after they’ve been fully approved to do so."

The radioactive resins had spilled from a sludge tank in the radwaste building, a storage facility where contaminated items are kept until they are packaged for permanent removal from the plant. Entergy and Sheehan say all of those incidents at FitzPatrick detailed in the report, including the spill, were of very low safety significance and the company said it's preparing to clean up the radioactive material.

For TimJudson with the Nuclear Information and Resources Center, these mishaps indicate the inherent dangers of keeping nuclear plants like FitzPatrick online.

“Entergy has known that this highly radioactive waste spill is a problem for four years, but the NRC has not imposed any fines or other penalties," Judson said in a press release. "Gov. Cuomo has raised similar concerns in regard to the Indian Point nuclear reactors near New York City, but he has remained silent on nuclear safety problems at upstate reactors.”

Sheehan said the NRC identified the spill years ago and had alerted Entergy of the need to clean it up, but the organization didn't have the regulations necessary at the time to enforce its removal. 

"We adopted a regulation that said to plant owners that if you have spillage of radioactive material, you cannot let that languish until the decommissioning phase because that’s just going to drive up the cost of decommissioning," Sheehan said.

Decommissioning is the years-long process of permanently shutting down of a nuclear plant. FitzPatrick was on that track until Exelon, owner of the nearby Nine Mile Point and Ginna nuclear plants, agreed to buy and operate the plant following the passage of New York's new nuclear subsidy program. That concerns Judson and members of another vocal anti-nuclear group, the Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE).

Despite the events in this latest report from the NRC, the organization recently announced that FitzPatrick did have a safe year overall

"The NRC looks at it from a holistic point of view," Sheehan said. "We’re looking at just not individual events or individual findings, we’re looking at everything that occurred at the plant during the previous year and whether that merits an increased level of oversight."

Still, that may not bring any comfort to Judson, who charges that the NRC has been lax in its enforcing the law at FitzPatrick. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.